The New Xenophobia

Oxford University Press

Tabish Khair

Pages: 220

Price: Rs 495


Looking at some of the recent developments in European politics can be dispiriting for all those who have harboured this romantic, almost childish belief in the founding principles — namely, humanism and internationalism — of the European Union. What we are now witnessing across Europe, against the tragic backdrop of a worsening refugee crisis, is the slow political mainstreaming of extreme-right sentiment. So Tabish Khair’s study of xenophobia comes at a pertinent historic moment, and it reads like a salutary, indeed a necessary counter-narrative to our reactionary age.

The New Xenophobia is an attempt to call into question our conventional ideas regarding racism and xenophobia — ideas having to do with the meanings, origins, and, most importantly, the manifestations of these terms. Looking at the title of the book, it becomes clear that Khair’s theory aims, among other things, to highlight how xenophobic feelings have transmogrified over time. And so, it becomes important for the author’s purposes, of advancing a new theory of xenophobia, to first define what he means by old xenophobia.

 “Old xenophobia is monstrous, spectacular and quickly identifiable,” Khair writes. The hatred or dislike of the stranger or the foreigner in this old idiom is expressed through certain forms of what Khair calls “push-out violence”. An ideal and extreme example of this would be the Nazi apparatus, which went to great sinister lengths to identify, segregate, ghettoise and finally trying to annihilate the Jewish community in Europe. This “other” is always marked out — pushed out — to the other side under old xenophobia.

New xenophobia, inverting the dynamics of this earlier model of persecution, “operates with varieties of push-in violence,” as Khair’s theory has it. In other words, the outsiders are subjected to a sort of forced assimilation, so that they begin to look less and less like outsiders. Khair cites as examples of new xenophobia the French burqua ban and the Swiss government’s ban on building minarets: both are attempts to conscript the outsider within a majoritarian, homogenous group; and both are the exact opposite of old-xenophobic tendencies of tagging (the Jewish yellow star) and separating foreigners from the volk

This old-new duality is not to suggest that earlier forms of xenophobia have vanished in the contemporary age. If anything, such feelings have resurfaced with a vengeance in the Western world. Consider Donald Trump’s yearning to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, and his proposal build a “beautiful wall” along the Mexican border. In his book Khair repeatedly emphasises that new-xenophobic ideas tend to co-exist with old-xenophobic sentiments. The separation between the two forms of xenophobia is attempted in Khair’s book for purposes of theoretical clarity, since the two, he writes, are “often interlinked in practice”.

Another important aspect of The New Xenophobia is the theoretical link it adduces between xenophobia and capitalism, especially the no-holds-barred capitalism of high finance, to which the West owes most of its present riches. A free market, in its ideal form, must allow for unrestricted flow of capital and labour across the free world. But the irony inherent in finance capitalism today, Khair writes, is that it allows for free and unrestrained movement of capital across the globe, while imposing strict regulations on the movement of labour. That’s because the great “first-world” states of Europe will have their backs broken — and their social welfare safety nets ruptured — if they permit unrestricted entry of labour into their countries. The disequilibrium sustains because it works in the favour of first-world nations.

“In this context,” Khair writes, “the political and social management of capital by nation states involves strategies that either encourage xenophobia or lead to paranoia among the citizens, regardless of what the ostensible position of the state might be on matters racial or religious.”

The New Xenophobia is an attempt to call into question our conventional ideas regarding racism and xenophobia — ideas having to do with the meanings, origins, and, most importantly, the manifestations of these terms.

Khair’s book is a well-researched scholarly study of a difficult subject. A lesser writer would have chosen to compile something simpler, say, a history of xenophobia. That Khair chose instead to put together a philosophical treatise that doesn’t shy away from complex ideas is testimony to his intellectual pluck. It shows how deeply the author has thought about his subject and how widely he read while doing his research.

This is one reason his lazy jibe against Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene rankles so much. Khair writes: “Dawkins uses pseudo-scientific notions, such as that of ‘kin-altruism’, to explain how and why the selfish gene prefers its own ‘kin’.” It’s mainly the title of Dawkins book — the term “selfish” — that Khair seems to have taken issue with (it’s also unlikely that he has read the book any further). Dawkins’ language reminds Khair of “blood, race and heredity”, a championing of sorts of a survival-of-the-fittest politics that we now associate with fascism. This, of course, is an old chestnut that Dawkins himself has addressed multiple times over the course of his career and is not worth going into here. Still, we are not told on what basis Khair calls the concept of kin altruism “pseudo scientific”. Or why he chooses to rubbish Dawkins’ finely argued book qua an academically respected scientific document.

The unfortunate segment on Dawkins is redeemed, thankfully, by the extended and perceptive review of Steven Pinker’s book on violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, presented in Khair’s book. Violence, Khair tells us, can take more abstract forms than how we commonly understand it. So when Pinker argues that violence has declined worldwide with the progression of human history, he’s only looking at the more obvious, physical forms of violence.

Violence is about exercising one’s power over the vulnerable. And just as our instruments of expressing power, like money, have become more abstract over the years, so has our ability to commit violence been abstracted (an employer firing an employee, for instance). Since xenophobia, too, is an expression of power, a form of abstract violence, it has adapted to the changing face of our globalised, money-mad world. What it has become today is “new xenophobia”, and if it weren’t for Khair’s wonderful book, we would never have known that.